When I was eleven years old my father sent me away for the summer. I don’t remember much about the preparation for the trip, whether or not my mother came with us to the airport, or even what he said to me when the flight attendant took my hand and escorted me onto the plane. All of those details are gone now like the morning fog that dissolves in a hot, Midwestern sun.
I understand why my father and mother sent me away. I was a hot tempered rat-bastard with blazing red hair and buck teeth. My ex-wife told me once that I looked like Alfred E. Newman—the guy that graced the cover of MAD magazine—a fitting place for a child like me. A child that had been kicked out of first grade and couldn’t last a week in school without going nuclear at least once.
I admit that my memory is slim here but I can still see the oak chair clenched in my hands and below that, the legs of the first grade boy that I’d hit over the head. He’s probably unconscious—of this point I have no recollection—and the vision fades above his thighs so all I remember are his legs splayed on the floor with the toes of his shoes pointed out like a duck.
I was a scourge to the classroom, a menace to the teachers, a full on pain-in-the-ass. And while I never thumped another kid over the head with a chair, I spent more time in the principles office than I did learning my multiplication tables or English grammar. I was the brunt of all the jokes and was teased relentlessly and could always be counted on to erupt with the regularity of a Yellowstone geyser.
By the spring of 1969 I can say with some certainty that I had been dragged to the principles office by every means possible including my hair and ears though my shirt collar was the method of choice coupled with a good deal of shaking the way a pit bull might shake a dead squirrel in its jaws.
The principle at Hough Street School in Barrington, Illinois, was a mean son-of-a-bitch. He was monolithic, the metamorphic equivalent of the younger bullies I was abused by almost everyday. I’m guessing he was ex-military with a buzz-cut, white shirt and a black tie, and stunk of cigarettes. Upon being dragged into his office he would grab me by the neck, lift me so my toes barely touched the floor, and then haul me outside his office to a pay phone. One of those black metal box-like contraptions that are not around anymore but this one was mounted on the wall low-down for little kids.
He jammed me underneath the phone so my head was wedged against the metal underside of the box and made me straighten my legs while we waited for my mother to come and pick me up. Sometimes I had to stand that way for more than an hour because my mother was a teacher and usually couldn’t just drop what she was doing to deal with my weekly suspensions.
This all lead to a family meeting between my parents and me about a summer camp in Wyoming. Now I can almost guess what your thinking about this meeting. A sweet gathering around the dining room table like a scene in Leave It To Beaver with my June-like mother gently holding my hand while my Ward-like father says, “Its for your own good son,” ruffling my hair. “You’ll come back a man.”
I only have a vague memory of this gathering, but this I know: my father sat stoically at the table staring into a fresh martini (maybe his third) while my mother explained that she had a colleague, who had a friend, or a cousin, who owned a summer camp in Wyoming with rock climbing and horseback riding. She said something like, “Honey,” wringing her hands, waiting for me to explode. “What do you think? It might be good for you.”
As I considered her words I pondered staying in Barrington for the summer and felt the burning tingle of Adrenalin in my finger tips because I would never be able to avoid Simon, the bully, and his murder of crows. I mean lets face it, every kid I knew was slated for the same stuff during the summer break: swim lessons, peewee baseball, movie nights, etc., including Simon and his thugs.
And there was no limit to Simon’s violence. Earlier that winter I had broken my leg in a skiing accident and had a cast from my toes to my crotch on my left leg. After school one day—it might have been March or April—Simon and his team of bastards caught me on the sidewalk after school hobbling on my crutches towards home—we only lived a half of a block from the school.
They surrounded me like a pack of wolves and pushed me up against the school yard fence where I kept them at bay with my crutches for a few short seconds before they got my sticks away. They threw me on the ground and flailed me. All the while Simon spit, “Buck-fucking-cunt-face! Pussy, sucking, mommas boy!” or something like this, as he kicked me in the face and thumped me with the crutches.
So the thought of staying in Barrington for the summer made me feel like a panicked canary that has just realized that someone has slipped a starved cat into the cage and locked the door. Wyoming? Sure as shit I wanted to go to Wyoming. When do I leave?
It didn’t even cross my mind why my parents wanted to send me away—the fact that the experience might cause me to change my behavior in school was not at the forefront of my consciousness. Looking back on it now I don’t think my parents understood why I acted the way I did in school or why I attracted the attention of the bullies. The reasons were perhaps too frightening for them to face because they would have had to look inside themselves to see the answers.
The gulf between my parents was huge like the distance between our solar system and the edge of the universe. A distance not crossable in a human time frame even by light speed—none of us have that many years in our lifespan. They were, each in their own way, isolated in a bubble of thick, bullet proof plexiglass. Sending me away seemed to them to be the best course of action because I was “away” already locked in the airless zone between their spheres of emotional desolation.
And I wasn’t alone. My sister, Michelle, was eighteen months younger than I was and my brother, Sean, was three years my junior. We all three existed in the vacuum between my parents, the milieu which taught us about human relationships. A family existence that was either calm like the seas within the eye of a hurricane or explosive like a lightening strike on the summit of the Grand Teton in Wyoming—ground shaking and terrifying.
Our existence shifted between the eye of the storm and the tumult of my father’s rage that exploded almost daily and usually at the dinner table. The tension between my father and mother was palatable—as thick and greasy as my mother’s meat loaf. My father’s rage machine was fueled by three, gin martinis and its ignition was catalyzed by my mother’s soft spoken admonishments. In the instant before the flash and the bang, I would lower my eyes, stare at my food, and count 1, 2, 3…
My father would launch out of his seat spilling glassware and silverware as we, the children, shot under the table with out fists pushed against our faces and watched their feet in a perfect two-step of violence. My father shouting, “You fucking bitch! You fucking Irish bitch!” against a backdrop of my mothers sobs, the wail the children and the thump of their bodies against the kitchen tall boy.
One of my earliest memories of my father is him kicking in the door to the master bedroom where my mother cowered, hiding from the violence of his fury. When I dwell on this memory my limbs are electrified, my heart thumps against the inner walls of my chest, and my breath whistles between my teeth.
Its the same feeling I get just before I take a big whipper off of a cliff when rock climbing or the time I was tracked by a bear in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming—the bear even stopped to sniff where I had last urinated thirty minutes earlier. A bear that chased me and my client two thirds of the way up a mountain called Pingora before the climbing hardened to the point where the bear could no longer manage the crack climbing. Needless to say, we spent the night bivied on a thin ledge and summited the next morning.
My earliest memory of my mother is distinctly different. We’re on a camping trip in the east somewhere near Washington DC. My father isn’t with us because he was in Korea serving in the US ARMY. My sister might have been three or four years old and my brother was still just a baby. My mother was radiant and loving and our time under the stars was a happy time though I can’t remember what we did exactly. We might have roasted marshmallows over the camp fire but I’m guessing that I spent most of my time alone, playing in the forest.
My parents dance of anger was unique to their relationship though its cycle was driven by their individual miseries. Which brings me back to the dining room table that evening in May when I agreed to let them send me to the Wind River Wilderness Camp. I don’t think it would be honest for me to say that I understood the true benefits of this decision at the time. What I mean to say is that beyond escaping the school bully I would also be escaping my family’s toxic dynamic though it’s doubtful that I could have processed something like that at eleven years of age. After all, this was my family and our dynamic was my normal but adding to this issue was the fact that my parents and teachers alike said that fixing my anger problem was just a matter of an attitude adjustment—just count to ten, they’d say.
Yet even at eleven the woods had already become my solace, my place of isolation far away from people. When I wasn’t in school or weeding the dandelions that populated our lawn, I dwelled in the nearby forest preserve where I hand-fished and knifed the bullheads and carp that lived in the slow moving streams and ponds. My favorite location was the spillway that passed under the railroad tracks on the far end of Hawthorn Lake beyond where the water flows under Otis Road and becomes the headwaters of Flint Creek.
I’d strip off my clothes and wade into the stream underneath the wood and iron trestle to build rock entrapment’s along the bottom of the creek. Then I would start at the spillway and create a ruckus in the water working downstream wading from side-to-side and then stealthily turn around and backtrack up the creek checking the traps. I would snake my hand into the opening of the rock structure effectively blocking any escape by the fish. The bullheads had to be caught using my bare hands because they were too small and maneuverable to use the knife. And they had sharp spines that could skewer your hand if you weren’t careful so they were more challenging to catch than the carp.
The carp on the other hand were much easier with a knife because of their size and slowness. So once I discovered a carp trapped within the rock tunnel I would withdraw my hand, pull my knife and spear them any way I could. The carp were big, usually upwards of three to five pounds with large scales that had to be removed if you wanted to cook them which we did only once.
I say only once because the bullhead and the carp tasted exactly like the oily, shit per-fused mud that they lived in. You know the smell I’m talking about: the visceral, sulfurous odor usually found in swamps. As far as I can remember we only ate the bullhead and carp that one time and after that my mother made me wrap them in foil and put them in the family freezer. Eventually she forbid me from bringing them home at all.
One year I managed to catch a snapping turtle that I called Eddie that I fed hot dogs to and kept through the winter before releasing him back into the preserve the following summer. When I think about Barrington, which isn’t often, I sometimes think about him and wonder if he still lives under that trestle because I know turtles have long lives. So as I sit here writing this, looking at satellite images of Hawthorn Lake spillway where Eddie resides on Google Maps, I’m certain that when I was eleven on that evening in May, with my father staring into his martinis and my mother clasping my hand in her hand that selling me on the idea of Wyoming must have been pretty easy.
I don’t remember much about the ensuing six weeks between the family meeting and when it was time to leave for Rock Springs, Wyoming, but I know I was very excited to leave Barrington for the summer. Fired up to fly on a plane for the first time—I mean back then the flight attendants were still called stewardess’s and for the most part entirely female. They still wore the beanie hats and greeted you with a smile and the service compared to these days—well, lets just say, it was excellent. And I didn’t have just one flight since there were two legs: Chicago to Denver and then a second flight in a sardine can over the Rocky Mountains into the Red Desert where Rock Springs, a two street town, sat in the valley at the base of White Mountain.
But I have to say that my excitement lasted for perhaps one hour into the first flight before I felt a crushing wait on my chest. My hands clenched into fists and I broke into a cold sweat, closed my eyes, and lowered my head onto the tray table. I was suddenly and irrevocably homesick.
I had a sense of total isolation like I had been removed from the mindful collective of my family. No sister to commiserate with, no brother to antagonize, no parents around—just the airless vacuum of my young existence. Looking back I have to say there wasn’t much inside myself that I liked: two-thirds black rage, one third moron. The rage was perplexing because I had no idea where it came from just that it was there in my chest like an ebony knot of horrific potential. I used to call my anger the hairy man and I wanted to kill him. In my imagination I’ve slain the hairy man by every means known to man. I’ve strangled him, burned him, cut off his head, shot him in the face—I hate the hairy man—even now forty-seven years later he is a plague to my existence.
What else was there to like about myself. The zone between my parents was empty, the home life bereft of any sort of meaningful interaction (except for anger) and outside of the home I was hated and bullied—school was a complete nonstarter for me. I abhorred school, feared the very idea that each morning I had to pass through the school yard into a world full of bullies and a social setting that was as foreign to me as the planet Mars. Worse yet there seemed to be nothing in the curriculum that I was good at. Nothing that I did well, nothing that belonged to me. Nothing in my heart that I could point to that made me feel valuable. There was just the rage. I was the pre-adolescent hairy man without a destiny other than mayhem and violence or so I thought as the plane landed at the Rock Springs-Sweetwater County airport.
I lifted my face off the tray table as the door opened with a muffled woof as dry Wyoming air infiltrated the cabin of the plane and the stewardess took my hand and led me to the door. At the bottom of the stairway there stood a cowboy, not the city type with shiny boots and a perfect Stetson hat. No. This guy was weathered like a well oiled saddle. He wore a faded, blue-collar shirt tucked into Levi’s with a black leather belt and a silver buckle pulled to the left—not centered like most people wore their western belts. There was a dark ring of sweat at the bottom of the crown of his short-rimmed, grey, Resistol hat. This guy was the real deal, the fucking Marlboro man, the guy that only a few months earlier had spent twenty-four hours in the saddle thundering across the sage plains to round up a heard of wild horses.
James Mines was the definition of America, the meaning of “jumpin and gettin it” having built a life with his hands out of the high plains on the western slope of the Wind River Mountains. A wild place where the wind always blows and the coyotes sing their ballad of hunger and deprivation where man and beast suffer together hoping that spring comes early and that the winter snows were deep enough to bring water to the freshly planted alfalfa fields.
Of course I had no idea about any of this as I tentatively made my way down the stairs from the cabin of the plane to stand before this man. He looked down at me through thick, wire rimmed bifocals with cobalt eyes and extended his hand. “Well,” he said. “You must be Pete.”
I nodded. He shook my hand with a heavily calloused grip. He was by my estimation as strong as granite and a few of his nails were purpled and split by hard, hammering work.
“How old are you, Pete?”
“Eleven,” I replied, wondering why he wanted to know.
“Long ways,” he said, pausing. “That’s a long ways you come all by yourself. From Chicago.” He turned toward the luggage that was accumulating on the tarmac. “Help me find your bag, Pete.”
“Its there,” I said, pointing at the only ARMY duffel among the suit cases. Peter Delannoy was stenciled in big black letters on the side of the bag. My dad had stenciled it with a Sharpie pen. You couldn’t miss it. I took hold of the handle and dragged it free of the other bags but then I felt James near me and his hand on my shoulder, “Here now,” he said. “Let me take that.”
He hefted the bag onto his shoulder as if it was packed with pillows and led me through a gate in a chain link fence into a parking area. Around me I saw a few buildings painted white and a vast open space, sage brush and mesas and mountains in the far distance.
I followed James to a light grey Chevy pickup truck with US Air Force stenciled on the doors. The truck was faded and weathered like the bones of a long dead steer. He told me later that he had bought the truck at a federal auction and that it had “seen some hard years.”
Even at my young age I was taken by the immeasurable quality of the land surrounding us as we rumbled down the highway toward the town of Rock Springs. The land was open to the sky and I felt liberated by the vast panorama. I could see the far horizon in all directions uninterrupted by roads or high rises or dense trees.
In the Midwest you had to take it on faith that the earth was round because there were few places where you could see further than a few miles. And though I still felt the crush of homesickness pressing against my chest, tears welling in my eyes, I felt the stirrings of a visceral connection to this wild country. A connection that in a few short years would grow into a sense of belonging, my true home with James and his family in the mountains and high plains of this amazing country.
We drove with the windows down and the AM radio on. The high pitched voice of Paul Harvey squawked through static from the single speaker at the center of the dashboard. James steered the truck with his hands clasped together in sort of a bear hug of the steering wheel leaning forward with his hat pulled down low over his eyes. At the base of the hill below the airport we came to Rock Springs: A town with two streets, a few diners, gas stations, bordered by train tracks and the Interstate 80.
It didn’t take long before Rock Springs was behind us and the road began to rise out of the valley onto the high plains. James pointed toward the distant jagged skyline, a sweeping purple mountain range that stretched from the northwest down to the southeast. “Those mountains are the Wind Rivers,” he said. “Right there on the south end is Wind River Peak—the biggest mountain in this part of the range.”
I couldn’t be sure which peak he was pointing at. Truth was, they all looked the same to me. But as I looked harder I could see splotches of white mixed in with the grey and realized there was snow on the slopes of those massive peaks that cut the sky. And then the truck slowed drawing me back into the cab of the truck, the smell of old vinyl, the static of the AM radio, as we pulled to the side of the road I saw a well used trail that cut through the sage and disappeared around a hillside to the east.
James pointed to the other side of the road where I could see the track dipping down before it disappeared into the valleys beyond. There were no fences, no high wires, just sage and plains and another grey mountain range in the far, far distance. The dusty trail, churned and tossed like an army had come through here and crossed the highway moving from one distant range to the other. “Them tracks is from a heard of wild horses, Pete.” he said, “They come across the highway here almost every night.”
And as we sat there on the side of the road I smelled horse dung wafting in the window along with another scent, one that I would come to know as the smell of horse, their damp, hairy sweat. The idea that horses lived here wild and free was a foreign concept to me. The only horses I’d ever seen were corralled and trained and their owners dressed in sleek billowed pants with white blouses and black helmets. The types of riders that stick their pinky’s up when they sip their tea. I couldn’t imagine horses that ran free like the scattered antelope that dotted the hillsides a few hundred yards away from the truck.
“Yea,” he said with a soft P at the end of the word, his voice rising softly. “My boys and I cut fifteen mares and one stallion outta’ that bunch last fall.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant by “cut” but I imagined John Wayne lassoing a horse in a cloud of dust or at least that’s what I’d seen in the movies. “You caught them with a rope?”
He nodded, still staring down the trail to the southwest. “Two days we chased them,” turning and finding my eyes with his eyes. “Until we trapped them in a box canyon. We got some good horses outta’ that bunch. Donny and Stevee broke them this spring.”
He turned his head expectantly waiting for me to ask but I didn’t accommodate him. “Donny and Stevee are two of my boys,” he said, starting the truck and pulling back on the road. “My youngest boy, Stevee,” he added, “Is just a few years older than you.”
This was how things went. James mostly talking trying to draw me out. Trying to get me to open up but the knot of homesickness had risen like a woolen cat toy and lodged itself at the top of my throat stilling my voice. In later years I would come to realize that I have an extreme discomfort around people I don’t know.
An introvertedness that freezes me in silence. I tell my wife before we walk into a gathering not to wait for me to introduce her—“just jump in and do it yourself” because I am all but unable to pierce through the paralysis and speak. Its not uncommon for me to blank on the names of my closest friends in these situations—to my extreme embarrassment. And I imagine that James must have found me to be quite the enigma as we motored through Farson: a town with literally two buildings and a population of two hundred and fifty.
Onward we drove with the Wind River Mountains seemingly rising within a stones throw of the highway until finally we turned right onto a dirt track called Haystack Butte Road. On the left side of the track was a canal with deep, flowing water of greenish hue. On the right we passed one or two ranches and then a few miles beyond came to another farm on the right side of the road. This was the Mines ranch.
As we turned into the wide, dirt driveway on the immediate right there was a light green ranch style home. Directly ahead was a low barn and an ARMY surplus, galvanized quonset hut—the repair shop. There were timbered corals between the buildings and I could see cows and horses milling around within those structures.
By my reckoning of these events it was late afternoon when we arrived at the ranch but the Wyoming sun was still high above the horizon. At home the light would be low throwing shadows through the Midwestern haze with the cloud edges blurred and the sky milky blue. Here in Farson, the sky was crystal clear and almost ebony. The clouds bore sharp, golden edges lased by a westering sun as they raced toward the Wind River Mountains sitting in watchfulness to the east of the ranch.
But all thought of beauty for this amazing place was lost as I leaned forward, dropped my chin to my chest, and cried—I wanted to go home. I felt James hand on my shoulder. “C’mon son.” he said, “Lets go inside and get some supper. You’ll feel better after you get some food in you.”
I can’t recall what I managed to say. Looking back I have to utterly applaud this man’s patience. Who needs to be saddled with such a person as myself given the condition I was in. But in the research I did before writing this I learned from Rod Mines, James Mines oldest son, that I came within a hairs breath of being sent home. In any case, a phone call was made to my parents and James was urged to keep me.
With a hand on my shoulder, James escorted me into his home. We entered into the mud room that smelled of soap and compost. On the left was a long rack of coats and western style hats that cloaked a row of boots and shoes on the floor. There was a utility sink along with a washer and dryer bordering the right side of the short hallway into the kitchen. The aroma of roasted meats emanated from the kitchen where I could see his family working—and I mean that everyone there had a purpose. And they seemed happy like they shared a cohesiveness as if they were all connected by an invisible web of family-ness the idea of which was completely foreign to me.
Standing over a large skillet of meat with a long fork in her hand was Jame’s wife, Florence. Short of stature she bore a warm smile under black, horned rimmed glasses. She might have been wearing patterned dress of the time: yellow flowers on a white background. Near Florence, and working both sides of the kitchen, was their youngest child, Marilyn. Behind them I could see a dining room table left of center near a large bay window looking out on a small yard and beyond that the high plains. There were two boys moving around the table setting the place mats and silverware: Donny and Steve.
Steve was close to my age—maybe two or three years older than me. Donny was a year or two older than Steve. They all were staring at me no doubt trying to decide what James had brought home with him. And I mean what, not who, because I must have been quite a sight, slobbering the way I was.
“Here son,” James said, propping my duffel in the corner behind the door. “ Leave your shoes here and wash your hands before coming into the kitchen. Supper’s almost ready.”
James hung his hat, slipped off his boots, washed his hands in the utility sink. I sat down on the floor to unlace my Sears hiking boots and watched James as he walked into the kitchen. He went straight to Florence, kissed her on the cheek, and whispered in her ear. All the while she held my gaze with her eyes. I’m sure he said something like, “We got our hands full with this one,” and then he went straight to the phone. A black wall phone that hung on the wall near the far end of the dining room table.
I saw him reach into his shirt pocket and draw out a small piece of paper: my parents phone number? In a second he waved to me and I made my way through the kitchen and took the receiver out of his hand. “Hello,” my voice cracked.
“Hi Peter,” it was my father.
I gushed. “I want to come home,” stammering. “Please…home.”
“No,” he said, abruptly. “You have to stay. You understand me. You need to see this through.” and then. “Here talk to your mother.”
“Honey. Your father’s right. It’ll be fun you’ll see.”
I handed the receiver back to James, crumpled into a chair at the table and sobbed. Then Florence was by my side. “Sit up, Pete.” with a strict voice. “You gotta toughen up. Suppers ready. Wipe those tears away and sit up.”
I turned my face up and found her eyes with my eyes. There was no meanness in her gaze just authority, tough love born of the plains and the mountains. And then she said something like “There are hard things in life but being away from home ain’t one of them.” Handing me a plate. “Once you eat you’ll feel better.”
The others were sitting and passing food. There was antelope, venison, and even bear meat. Mashed potatoes and gravy and salad with thousand island dressing. It was a veritable feast, one that was repeated every night. Yet everyone at the table was fit, and thin, and burnished by the sun. And there was conversation and laughter all around with none of the tension that existed within my home.
There seemed to be a general curiosity about me and my life in Barrington. How far was my house from Chicago? How often did I go to the city? What did my dad do for a living? and so on. I’m certain that I didn’t make it easy for them to know me given my level of discomfort around people.
Even now in my late fifties I find social gatherings to be about as much fun as sitting in a dentist chair having one of my teeth drilled on. Yet in the coming years I would adopt this family as my own for a few months out of each year. They were about to become my brothers and sisters and pseudo parents—mentors that lifted me out of the emotional dead zone of my home existence. So in some kind of twisted way my father and mother had been right to make me stay here. Whether they knew this on some intuitive level or it was something they did because their own parents had done it to them, I’ll never know because they’re dead now and I can’t ask them.
As I finished my meal and delivered my plate to the sink—all family members pitched in with chores—James took me by the shoulder and lead me to the door and out into the failing light of the day. We loaded two shovels along with two sets of rubber boots into the back of the grey truck.
There was irrigating to be done. In those days the entire ranch was flood irrigated which during the short growing season meant shifting gates and digging ditches in different fields twenty-four hours a day and the entire family took turns doing it. I couldn’t have realized that the memory of this night would become the sharpest memory of that year in my life.
Don’t get me wrong the three weeks yet to come were filled with rock climbing a shear cliff called the Super Fly, getting bucked off a horse as it crashed through a thick stand of timber, climbing Mt. Victor in a snow storm with nothing but a jean jacket and a cheap poncho, my hands and ears freezing numb in the process. Enduring my first survival course after Mt. Victor—traversing forty miles of the continental divide on four trout, spring beauties, and mountain blue bells spread over three days—only to bivouac in the rain and snow without any shelter on the last night of the trip. All of these things were yet to happen and amount to major life changing events for me but in that moment, standing near the grey truck, I was in the process of living the one experience that would stand out with the most clarity.
I slipped into the passenger seat of the truck next to James. When I shut my eyes I can hear the whine of the engine as he started the truck and drove to Hay Stack Butte Road making a right turn toward the high mountains that seemed magnified through the lens of the evening light. I can still smell of sage and oil and dust as we drove down the dirt track with the main irrigation canal on our left—a veritable river where in a few short years later I would water ski by kneeling on a small piece of plywood roped to the bumper of Donny Mines’s truck.
A truck with tires of three different sizes stripped down to nothing but a chassis and a bench seat like something out of Mad Max. We took turns, one person driving, the other person skiing, racing up and down the ditch holding on for dear life but letting go in the last instant before being dragged into the rocky bank of the canal at thirty miles per hour—of course on this night the canal just seemed like a slow moving river. On the right side of the road beyond a barbed wire fence were the fields of hay and alfalfa that were in the process of being irrigated.
James parked the truck near a gate that opened into a field full of alfalfa. “We need to irrigate this field,” he said. “Gotta shift the water around and I need your help.” He handed me a pair of black, rubber boots. “These are Steve’s—his youngest boy. Maybe a little big for you but you’ll get by in them and they’ll keep your feet dry.”
I sat down in the dirt and took off my shoes and donned the boots. They came all the way up to my knees. As I stood James handed me a shovel and lead me to a ditch that gurgled with fast running water. We followed the narrow ditch to a junction where there was a gate made of plywood that diverted the water into the adjacent field.
“What I need you to do, Pete. Is walk up this canal past the gate here and open up the drainage ditches into the next field like this,” he said. He stepped past the gate and shoveled the dirt out of a low cut that would allow water to flow into the field. “Go all the way to the next gate. Then come back here and open this gate. You’ll pull up the plywood here and slot it over there.” he pointed at the open gate where the water currently ran into the adjacent field. “I’ll meet you back here in a while. I’m going to do the same thing on the other side.” Then he leaned close. “I’m happy to have your help,” he said. He put his hand on my shoulder. “Its a damn tough living out here and we’re happy anytime we have an extra hand to help out.”
Then he turned and walked up the field in the other direction. There was something in the way he’d spoken to me. No one had ever talked to me like that. I felt valued for the first time in my life and a surge of pride filled my chest. I stepped past the gate and got right to it, shoveling the debris out of the periodic runnels that would feed water into the field. Maybe it was an hour later when I met James back at the gate. By this time I had the gate opened and the water diverted into the new field.
“Well,” he said. “How’d it go?”
“Pretty good,” I answered tentatively.
James stepped around the gate and wandered a short distance up the ditch squinting into the gathering dusk. When he returned he seemed pleased. “You done well,” he said.
Back at the truck we changed into our shoes and loaded the shovels and boots into the truck bed. James opened the passenger door and climbed into the seat. He gave me a look. “I’m beat, “ he said. “Why don’t you drive us back to the place.”
I was electrified with shock. After all, I was only eleven years old and from the suburbs of Chicago: a no account mamas boy whose only experience with cars was riding in them. “I don’t know how.” I said.
“Climb in,” patting the drivers side seat with his hand. “I’ll show you how. All my boys started driving when they were your age.”
I stepped around to the drivers side of the truck, opened the door and slid in behind the wheel. There was a gear shift on the right rising off the floor on a long steel rod. On the floor there were three pedals closely spaced on the right side of the foot well. I’d seen this configuration before in my parents car and at least understood the basic concept. The pedal on the far right, long and rectangular was the gas pedal. The pedal on the far left was the clutch and the one in the middle was the brake. “Push in the clutch to shift,” he said. “Try it out before we start the truck.”
So I pushed in the clutch and found first gear. The shifter slid up a long ways—this was “granny” gear he explained. In this gear the truck would creep along the road with the engine idling. Next I pulled the shifter down into second gear. I practiced this for a few minutes and then he had me push in the clutch and the brake and I turned the key starting the truck.
“Ok,” he said. “Put the truck in first gear.”
I pushed the shifter up into its highest position.
“Give it a little gas and let the clutch out.”
Which I did by popping the clutch and killing the motor.
“Try it again,” there was no disappointment in his voice. No anger or lack of patience. It seemed like we had all night to get this one simple thing done.
On the third try we crept forward with the truck in granny gear. Fumbling, I found the lights and managed to turn the truck around facing back up the road from which we’d come. We crept along with the engine idling. I could have walked back to the ranch faster than we were moving at this point.
“Now see if you can shift into second gear,” he suggested. “Push in the clutch and pull the shifter down…you’ll feel it go into gear…then give some gas.”
The truck coughed and died. I had found forth gear and killed the motor.
I’m almost certain that at this point I must have suggested that he take over the driving. I was shaking.
“Nonsense” he said. “Try it again.”
In a moment we were idling up the road in granny gear again. I tried for second gear and the truck jerked and rolled to a halting stop.
Again I managed to idyll in first gear along the road.
“You’re doing fine, Pete.” he said in a low voice. “We’ll just go along like this.” And with that he leaned back in the seat, pulled his hat down low on his eyes and made like he was sleeping.
We idled back to the ranch at perhaps three miles an hour.
In my minds eye I have often thought that maybe my inability to find second gear was a good thing because it enabled this man to have a break in a day that was long and full of tasks. I knew that at three am he would be back out to the field that we had just visited to change the water again and then at first light there were cuttings to start and fields to rake and hay to bail. This was a life with work the likes of which I had never seen of my parents or our neighbors back in Chicago. Our lives were remarkably different and yet as I gripped the steering wheel gently guiding the truck back to the ranch house I felt taken in by this moment. This amazing man, shaped by the dirt and the hardness of the land, was the father that I had always wanted and when I glanced at him sleeping with his head resting against the back of the seat, I realized that I wanted to preserve this moment and make it last forever.